Ownership: Plenty of fun, but an almost guaranteed loss-maker

Christmas may be a time of relaxation for many of us but the festive period is a hectic time for anyone involved in the horse racing industry.
Ownership: Plenty of fun, but an almost guaranteed loss-maker

The annual feast wouldn’t be possible but for the commitment of those who make the game possible — owners, trainers, jockeys and the people who cater for the every whim of every horse.

Of the stakeholders involved, it is perhaps the importance of owners that’s overlooked the most. John Timpson is one such man. Timpson is a hugely successful businessman, the chief executive and owner of Timpson, a British chain that specialises in shoe repairs, key cutting and engraving.

In 2002, he bought his wife Alex a racehorse and began an adventure that continues to this day. Alex sadly died last January and her husband has written a highly entertaining book, Under Orders: The Diary of a Racehorse Owner’s Husband, about their adventures in the ownership game.

There’s a lot of warmth in the book but it’s also hard-hitting at times with Timpson offering strong views regarding the treatment of owners and the prizemoney on offer.

Expanding on those observations, he says: “I do think racecourses forget that they can’t actually hold a race meeting without having some horses.

“Towcester is a particular example that comes to mind. There’s no owners and trainers car park, you get hoarded into this tent, you get a tepid cup of tea and that’s it. I just want there to be an understanding that we as the owners are the ones who supply the horses for the sport.”

Regarding prizemoney, he adds: “It’s very simple. At best, it costs you £4,000 (€4,700) to actually get a horse to a race. A lot of times you’re running in a race where the first prize is £3,500 (€4,100). So even if you win, you’ve lost.”

However, Timpson is also keen to point out that some racecourses treat owners impeccably and that even places that disappoint can be looked at very differently if one of his horses win.

“If you are an owner at the Cheltenham Festival, you are fantastically well looked after. It’s a proper owners and trainers thing where they don’t let anyone else in and it’s great. Haydock’s also always been pretty good.

“Leicester’s soulless, there’s little character there but, even there, I’ve had some days I’ve enjoyed because the horse has won. If you have a winner, you feel an awful lot better about the place.”

Early in the book, Timpson offers some sobering advice for anyone pondering joining the ownership game.

He writes: “I can almost 100% guarantee that your investment in racing will lose you money.”

That bodes an obvious question: Why do it?

Timpson counters with a question of his own. “You tell me a hobby that makes money? Most sports don’t make money. I don’t know why, with racing, that people think a measure of the enjoyment is based on how much money you make. You should be measuring it in terms of how much fun you have.

“I’ve been involved in about 24 horses and every one has lost money and the one who lost least money, the Crafty Cobbler, was the one who died on the gallops before it saw a racecourse. Although that saved me money, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. Ownership was never going to be a money making proposition. I wasn’t so stupid to think it would be.

“But what I hadn’t realised was all the fun that happens behind the scenes, chatting to the trainer, meeting all the different people at the racecourses, the wonderful things they say to you to manage your expectations and encourage you to keep faith with the horse for another season. ‘Big horse, will do well over fences next season.’ ‘A really decent sort this one, we’re going to have a lot of fun with this horse — you just wait.’ They’re wonderful at keeping your enthusiasm up.”

The dream for any owner of a National Hunt horse is to bag a winner at the Cheltenham Festival. John and Alex came closest in 2006 when Pressgang, a horse they owned a leg of, finished second in the 2006 Champion Bumper.

“It was probably, when I think about it, in the first 15 or 20 races that I was involved in,” John reflects. “We came second in the Cheltenham Bumper by a head! It was ridiculous.”

They also came close in the 2015 festival when Sixty Something fell four from home when going away from the rest of the field in the Kim Muir.

That was disappointing but rather than curse bad luck, Timpson is keen to stress the positives.

“I’ve never actually won a race at Cheltenham, never mind at the festival. It’s still an ambition. It’s actually quite good to have some things that you still haven’t done 13, 14 years in.

“To win the Gold Cup in your first year must not be a great idea, really. The only way is down. And that’s one of the reasons why I’d never pay a lot of money for a horse. If you spend £200,000 (€235,000) for a horse you can’t win because a win is what you expect.”

Along the way many races have been lost but the darkest days have come when horses made it to the track but didn’t make it back to the stable.

That sad fate befell Pressgang. It also happened to King Of Kings just 250 yards into his debut.

“The difficultly is the people who are looking after the horses,” Timpson says. “They’re with them day in, day out and they’ve come to the races from the stables in the horsebox and they go back without a horse in the box. They’re the people who suffer most of all.”

Of course, the biggest blow for John was the death of Alex. It was her lifetime ambition to own a racehorse that got him into the sport to begin with. Was there a temptation to leave the game when she died?

“My first thought was that I can’t not carry on because we’ve got a horse called Cobbler’s Son who has not yet run and who will be running after Christmas for the first time. He was born to Cobbler’s Queen and is the only foal that we bred. I can’t give up before I see what happens there but this is my first season on my own and I’m starting to get into it. If you find I’ve bought another horse you’ll know I’m in it forever.

“You always live in hope,” Timpson adds. “It’s very unlikely but you don’t know. You can pay £20,000 (€23,500), £30,000 (€35,300) for a horse who can make it. You don’t have to pay £200,000 (€235,000) to get a Cheltenham winner. It helps, but I’m not going to do it that way. I’ve one or two this year that I might be watching in March. Royal Palladium has won this season, Super Sam has won twice and Un Prophete has been out twice this season and came second both times. They all look promising but it might be a year away from the big win. But who knows?”

The dream lives on.

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